Amnesty International: the politics of morality

Stephen Hopgood
22 March 2010

The expansion of Amnesty International's remit to include "full spectrum" human rights may entail costs as well as benefits, says Stephen Hopgood, author of "Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International".

The idea that the focus of Amnesty's International's work should be widely extended to accommodate what it called the "full spectrum" of human rights was advocated a year ago on openDemocracy by the organisation's British campaigns director, Stephen Bowen (see "'Full-spectrum' human rights: Amnesty International rethinks", 3 June 2005). The notion of "full spectrum" includes, in this perspective, a panoply of economic, social and cultural rights of which those to water, education, housing, a family life, work, and the use of a language of one's choice are only a few; the definition is flexible enough to accommodate further development, such as the right to abortion.

At its 2006 annual general meeting, Amnesty International's British section (AIUK)moved closer to asking its members (and the Amnesty International organisation globally) to accept that "the full realisation of human rights should be understood to mean that a woman's right to physical and mental integrity includes a right to: information on the risks of abortion, (and) legal, safe and accessible abortion should she choose to have an abortion."

This approach was reflected too in the presentation on 23 May 2006 by the organisation's secretary-general, Irene Khan, of the Amnesty International Report 2006: The State of the World's Human Rights.

Most recently, Amnesty has initiated (in partnership with the Observer newspaper) a new campaign against internet censorship and repression, by information-technology companies as well as by governments. "Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It is one of the most precious of all rights. We should fight to protect it", the campaign website announces.

This is all a far cry from Amnesty's archetypal, historic concern: the prisoner of conscience, languishing in a jail cell for speaking his or her mind. It was the experiences of such "forgotten prisoners" that led the English lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961 to create the organisation, after his Observer article highlighting the case of two Portuguese students imprisoned for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom provoked a wave of sympathetic concern: "Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government…".

To look at Amnesty's long march over these forty-five years, and the difference between Amnesty's founding moment and what it is seeking to become in 2006, makes one thing plain: being the iconic global symbol of moral authority clearly isn't what it used to be. In what follows I'll try to explain what has happened to make Amnesty International redefine its purpose and field of vision in terms of "full-spectrum" human rights, why it has come to do so, and what the implications of the shift might be.

Stephen Hopgood is lecturer in international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is the author of Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Cornell University Press, 2006)

Also in openDemocracy on Amnesty International's rethinking:

Stephen Bowen, "'Full-spectrum' human rights: Amnesty International rethinks" (3 June 2005)

Maryann Bird, "Rhetoric, rights and reality"
(23 May 2006)

A voice raised

There was a time, either side of 1977 – in the year it won the Nobel peace prize, sixteen years after its foundation – when Amnesty drove the human-rights agenda. Its voice towered over that of all other advocates for human rights, thin on the ground as they were. The first of the "watch" committees, Helsinki Watch, was only formed in 1978, the same year as the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First). This was a time when, as one former Amnesty researcher told me during my research for Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International, the United Nations "treated human rights workers like the plague."

Afraid of being tainted by the suspicion states reserved for human-rights activists whom they considered irredeemable critics of absolute sovereignty, it was only after the cold war that the UN established its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 1993. This was something Amnesty had first proposed in the 1960s. And if the voices raised for human rights were few in the "first world" at this time, they were all but non-existent in the "second" and "third" worlds, where they were viewed as Trojan horses for the left (by the right), and the right (by the left).

In the long, dark days of the cold war, Amnesty kept a lonely vigil and, by 1977, could justifiably consider itself the voice for human rights. This reputation was based on a narrow range of substantive concerns – prisoners of conscience, torture, the death penalty, disappearances and extra-judicial executions – and a highly restrictive set of working practices designed to ensure objectivity, impartiality and independence. Amnesty's core concerns and methods were carefully monitored by its permanent international staff, its international secretariat, in London.

There were problems, of course, even in 1977. Amnesty's basic technique, compiling individual prisoner cases for members to campaign about, was expensive and time-consuming, and its core London staff simply could not keep up with demand. Membership outside northern Europe, north America and Australia and New Zealand was minimal. Many new human-rights issues – economic and social rights, women's rights, gay rights – were being promoted by various social movements who implicitly, at this stage, challenged Amnesty's right to say with authority what human rights were.

Amnesty's very success, especially in the United States, attracted new and vocal members into an organisation structured around the policy that Amnesty must always speak with "one voice." They sought to challenge, over time, both the pre-eminence of the London-based research staff, the established way of raising human-rights awareness, and eventually the substantive issues on which Amnesty worked. This process entailed an ongoing struggle that continues today, albeit with the advocates of transformation, of "full spectrum", now in the ascendant.

An argument made

At issue are two sorts of authority: moral and political. The difference between them can be caught by a simple idea. The trust that a moral authority inspires is that it speaks for everyone, without fear or favour, from a vantage-point that is somehow detached from the perspective of any one person or social group. It is just a question of the facts, of what is right or true. This is the position of a judge, or a witness.

The trust that a political authority inspires is almost the opposite. It is derived from being a representative of a perspective or an interest, from possessing the marks of belonging, or at least of being openly partial to the cause one is advancing. This is the position of the advocate.

For Amnesty the award of the Nobel peace prize was the highpoint of its moral authority, its protectors in the 1970s and 1980s were convinced that Amnesty's restrictive concerns and internal culture were vital to maintaining its reputation for being a moral beacon. This gave shape to the idea that Amnesty was a non-political organisation, not condemning apartheid in its early years, for example, but condemning the human-rights abuses of the apartheid regime much as it would condemn the human-rights abuses of a liberal democracy.

These protectors were reluctant to receive money from foundations, or corporate and state sources, fearing that Amnesty's sacredness – its separation from all worldly interests – would be diminished. They were doubtful about the "quality" of some new members, convinced that joining Amnesty was something for which the new member, rather than the organisation, ought to be grateful. They were in favour of a restrictive focus – a narrow "mandate" – that centred on prisoners, and suspects, and their treatment by the state. And who could blame them, given Amnesty's unrivalled prestige in 1977?

But the advocates of political authority were gaining ground. What was the point of having this moral power, they argued, if it could not be used to transform the world more directly? Some sought the adoption of new rights, especially gay rights and economic and social rights; some, the expansion of Amnesty membership outside the rich north, and southern elites, by softening the rigid structures through which an organisation with "one voice" was run; some, by using campaigning tactics and corporate techniques to attract both members and money, thereby leveraging Amnesty's existing moral authority into a more potent political force, especially by better use of the mass media.

Deep soul-searching about Amnesty's lack of effectiveness during the atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda, and determined efforts at internal change during the 1990s, led to the formal rejection of the very idea of a restrictive operational core, the "mandate," in 2001. Now Amnesty has a "mission", and is well on the way to full spectrum.

In other words, the switch from moral to political authority is nearly complete; recent, strident critiques of the US government's actions in Guantánamo Bay and Iraq, along with AIUK's move towards the right to abortion, are only the most visible examples.

What is at stake in this shift? Is it like the difference between saying "we think torture is wrong" and "torture is wrong"? The first sounds like opinion, the second like fact. Does it matter, in making everyday social progress, whether an organisation makes moral claims that it says are true, or right, rather than just desirable? How does it have to behave to make one or other kind of claim plausible and effective? What difference does its conduct make, for example, to those who are indifferent, mildly sceptical, or even hostile?

A position taken

It is evident that taking more controversial positions will increase the criticism that Amnesty suffers at the hands of its opponents. But there also three further possible implications.

First, if Amnesty's moral authority is being turned into political authority, into the taking of sides, will it be able to get it back if it changes its mind? Will it become just another partial group, preaching to the converted? Wasn't the strength of the narrow core that there was broad agreement that these few abuses were unquestionably wrong, and that Amnesty was an authority to be trusted about that? Wasn't this recognition that Amnesty's hopes were unavoidably constrained not by its own ambitions but by our inherently imperfect world a remarkable achievement in itself?

In the case of abortion, Amnesty is moving into an area where there simply is no agreement, even amongst rights-observing people. Might this damage, in a deeper sense, the very idea that human rights are fundamentally about ultimate questions of right and wrong? Has the human-rights movement taken Amnesty's role as foundational moral conscience for granted?

Second, what if AIUK's members, as a whole, vote against the right to abortion even as their leadership decides that, along with economic, social and cultural rights, it must be supported for Amnesty to be taken seriously as a global player? Or what if Amnesty globally says no, when "full-spectrum" sections like AIUK have said yes? What is the legitimate demos in such cases? Do ethical questions have organisational boundaries? Why not join another organisation that thinks as you do? Most of all, will there be even one thing that we can say all Amnesty members agree on?

Consider attitudes to the death penalty in Amnesty International USA, a sizeable proportion of whose members are opposed to it because they fear executing the innocent, rather than because they recognise a right to life in all circumstances. Keeping such a diverse movement together has been tough. Amnesty has always been broadly sympathetic to the liberal left, for example, but taking on economic and social issues through the lens of rights, rather than through more direct action, will make its united front harder to sustain, shedding potential members along the way to the anti-globalisation movement.

Third, entering the world of fundraising and merchandising necessary to sustain such a wide-ranging global mission will bring Amnesty into competition with other organisations, like Oxfam, that already cover the whole spectrum of development, emergency relief and (increasingly) rights work. What will make Amnesty distinct? What is its comparative advantage compared with Oxfam? Why not join Oxfam, or give it your money? Amnesty's move to full spectrum may erode what distinctiveness it has, vacating the space where a new moral authority can emerge committed to human rights work in a way distinct from Oxfam and other, service driven, humanitarian organisations. If Amnesty didn't exist, would we need to invent it? It is a sign of its achievements that this question is still worth asking.

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